Veteran company members Francesca Chilcote and Kathryn Zoerb have been named Co-Artistic Directors of Washington’s Commedia dell’Arte company, Faction of Fools has announced. The women succeed Paul Reisman, who held the position for three years.
In a prepared statement, Faction of Fools Board Co-Chairs Ralph and Denise Perrino noted that “Kathryn and Francesca bring a wealth of experience and expertise to the company that will provide the perfect foundation for the next decade of Commedia dell’Arte for theater goers throughout the Washington metropolitan area.”
When asked, in an exclusive interview with DC Theatre Scene, how they made the decision to take on the leadership, the women responded: “We have always been passionate Fools and involved with the company in more ways than on stage. This was a wonderful opportunity to support this company we hold so dear.”
Chilcote, who previously ran the Company’s Education program, earned her MFA in Physical Theater at the Accademia dell’Arte in Arezzo, Italy, studying with Maestro Marcello Bartoli. Zoerb, formerly the company’s Director of Marketing, completed her undergraduate study at the Accademia and continued her training at ArscomicA in Reggio Emilia, Italy, under Maestro Antonio Fava.
The working partners Chilcote and Zoerb often perform onstage together for Faction of Fools.
Commedia dell’Arte, a centuries-old form of theater originating in Italy, relies principally on stock characters, usually played by actors in masks, doing absolutely ridiculous things in the context of a traditional story. Pratfalls and slapstick are common. It is the staple of Faction of Fools.
Like many forms of theater which hew to a Renaissance-era tradition, Commedia tends to be male-centric. Chilcote described how the Fools approach this challenge. After pointing out that there are only three stock women characters — the high status lover, the worldly lover, and the servant — and noting that the first documented European actress was a Commedia artist, Vincenza Armani, Chilcote observed:
“For me, it’s very important to continue to keep casting open for masked and unmasked roles to any performer, to examine the economic and political contexts in which these women characters were created, and push the form by demanding more specificity for them in characters and plot.”
“With all three previous artistic directors,” Zoerb pointed out, “Faction of Fools has employed gender blind casting. We have gotten some truly fabulous results when we cast based on the essence of the performer rather than where they fall on the gender spectrum. We will absolutely continue to employ this.”
Zoerb and Chilcote are committed to running the company in a collaborative way, rather than dividing responsibilities among them. ‘Kathryn and I share artistic leadership and business administration responsibilities equally,” Chilcote said. “We are working off a company model with a horizontal power structure, enlisting our five ‘Executive Fools’ in the running of the company through committees with names like Development, Education, Marketing, Production Management, etc.”
The collaboration will extend, Chilcote said, to the productions itself. “Inspired by the practices of the first commedia troupes, we are most interested in devising as an ensemble. Originally, there were no ‘playwrights’ or ‘directors’, only actors working together to perform ‘scenari’ or scenarios written by the capocomico, the troupe leader. We are very inspired by this ethos. Not only does it equally privilege every voice in the room, but in my experience, it results in comedy that becomes so much more thoughtful and surprising.”
Of course, the pair’s ambitious plans are on hold until the present plague abates sufficiently to permit them to move back into the Fools’ space at Gallaudet University. “We can’t wait for the next time we can all safely gather at the theatre,” Zoerb said. “While we are hoping and preparing for future productions, we are more committed to solving how we can continue to bring our craft safely to the audiences. Commedia troupes would always be changing and adapting to new avenues, so we see this as an opportunity to stretch out of our comfort zone.”
Along those lines. the new Artistic Directors have some plans for their stay-at-home audiences. “In June,” they said, “we will begin ‘Foolish Fridays’, where every Friday we post a short video. These will be performed by staff and company members alike and are intended to bring much need end-of-the-week joy.”